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Discover Hidden Treasures in Downtown Honolulu and Chinatown

Updated on September 23, 2014
Downtown Honolulu
Downtown Honolulu

History, Art and Cuisine

Hawaii is a place of incredible natural beauty. Beaches with long stretches of white sand, tropical flowers in bloom everywhere and amazing sunsets await the visitor. But Hawaii is more than just natural beauty. Honolulu has so much more to offer than just beaches. In fact, it'd be hard just trying to fit everything into a week-long holiday.

One of my favorite things about where I grew up, is the urban area of Honolulu, and within the city lies downtown, which sits between the historical district and colorful Chinatown. The area is definitely worth exploring especially if you're into art, exotic sights and great food.In fact, if you're a foodie like me, some of the best and most exciting restaurants can be found in this area.

I spent an entire day, combing the streets of downtown Honolulu. I invite you to come along with me to see just how exciting urban Honolulu can be.

*Photos taken by myself unless otherwise noted.

A Quick Question

Have you ever visited Honolulu before?

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Kamehameha Statue
Kamehameha Statue

The Historic District and Hawaii State Art Museum

The eastern part of downtown is where the historical buildings such as Iolani Palace ( the only royal palace in the United States ), and the State Capitol can be found along with many other buildings that date back to the time of the Hawaiian monarchy. A walk through this area is like strolling back through time. Although the royal palaces remain, they are now used as offices for government purposes. One building that can be toured is the Iolani Palace, which has been beautifully preserved. Just make sure to make reservations before going.

The great thing about visiting a place again, is the discovery of something new. On this certain trip, I was pleasantly surprised to find a museum that I never knew existed. Located inside the historic Spanish-Mission style structure built in 1928, the Hawaii State Art Museum is a treat for art lovers. Dedicated to the art and culture of Hawaii, the museum showcases a variety of artwork by many local, as well as international artists. Another surprising fact is that the museum can be enjoyed free of charge.

The Capitol District and Museum

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The beautifully preserved Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States.King Kamehameha StatueThis Spanish-Mission style building houses one of the most beautiful museums I've been to.The museum is small enough for a quick tour.Inside the museum, I found a children's play area, encouraging some hands-on creativity.The entire building is stunning and houses a nice casual restaurant.Do you love art?Lots of interactive displays in this area.Sometimes abstract artwork manages to put me into a trance.
The beautifully preserved Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States.
The beautifully preserved Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States.
King Kamehameha Statue
King Kamehameha Statue
This Spanish-Mission style building houses one of the most beautiful museums I've been to.
This Spanish-Mission style building houses one of the most beautiful museums I've been to.
The museum is small enough for a quick tour.
The museum is small enough for a quick tour.
Inside the museum, I found a children's play area, encouraging some hands-on creativity.
Inside the museum, I found a children's play area, encouraging some hands-on creativity.
The entire building is stunning and houses a nice casual restaurant.
The entire building is stunning and houses a nice casual restaurant.
Do you love art?
Do you love art?
Lots of interactive displays in this area.
Lots of interactive displays in this area.
Sometimes abstract artwork manages to put me into a trance.
Sometimes abstract artwork manages to put me into a trance.

Your Best Tour Guide

Lonely Planet Discover Honolulu, Waikiki & Oahu (Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet Discover Honolulu, Waikiki & Oahu (Travel Guide)

This full-color guide shows you the best beaches, sights and off-the-beaten-track places to visit on Oahu. I have this guidebook myself and I can vouch for this one. The restaurant section recommends a lot of my favorites.

 

Honolulu's Financial District

The sight of the skyscrapers in downtown reminds one that Honolulu is indeed, an urban city. However downtown Honolulu is small compared to other cities but the manageable size makes it easy to see everything in less than a day.

At first glance, this place seems nothing more than a concrete jungle but a closer look reveals some of the oldest and most architecturally interesting buildings on the island. In fact, many are declared national historic landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places. Taking some time to stroll through this concrete jungle will reward you with a look into the locals going about in their daily lives.

Fort Street Mall is one of the oldest streets in Honolulu and is located smack in the middle of the financial district. In the 1950's, it hosted several of the largest department stores in Hawaii such as Kress, Liberty House and Woolworth's. However with the opening of the gigantic Ala Moana Shopping Center in 1959, most of the retail businesses started to relocate.

Today, Fort Street Mall has been transformed into a pedestrian mall with an small but interesting open market that's open from Tuesday through Friday from 7:00 AM to 1:30 PM. This is a good opportunity to sample many offerings from local purveyors such as Hawaiian mochi ( rice cakes ), artisan breads and fresh cut flowers.

Many cafes, delis and restaurants can be found here, mostly catering to the weekday work crowds, but the selections are as diverse as the different cultures that make up Hawaii.

A Stroll Through the Financial District

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The towering skyscrapers of Honolulu.These old buildings have so much character and charm.One of my favorite shops is located inside this building. ( Reyn's Rack, selling Reyn Spooner aloha shirts at a discount )The "For Rent" sign that caught my attention."No Trespassing" sign also called to me.A selection of organic teas on the counter of this new cafe.This is probably my favorite cafe in downtown at the moment.They have the best organic brownies I've ever tasted.Another coffee joint that serves a good matcha brownie for $3.95. Pricey, but tasty nonetheless.I don't know what kind of style this is, but this building intrigues me.
The towering skyscrapers of Honolulu.
The towering skyscrapers of Honolulu.
These old buildings have so much character and charm.
These old buildings have so much character and charm.
One of my favorite shops is located inside this building. ( Reyn's Rack, selling Reyn Spooner aloha shirts at a discount )
One of my favorite shops is located inside this building. ( Reyn's Rack, selling Reyn Spooner aloha shirts at a discount )
The "For Rent" sign that caught my attention.
The "For Rent" sign that caught my attention.
"No Trespassing" sign also called to me.
"No Trespassing" sign also called to me.
A selection of organic teas on the counter of this new cafe.
A selection of organic teas on the counter of this new cafe.
This is probably my favorite cafe in downtown at the moment.
This is probably my favorite cafe in downtown at the moment.
They have the best organic brownies I've ever tasted.
They have the best organic brownies I've ever tasted.
Another coffee joint that serves a good matcha brownie for $3.95. Pricey, but tasty nonetheless.
Another coffee joint that serves a good matcha brownie for $3.95. Pricey, but tasty nonetheless.
I don't know what kind of style this is, but this building intrigues me.
I don't know what kind of style this is, but this building intrigues me.

Honolulu Town - Images of America

Honolulu Town (Images of America)
Honolulu Town (Images of America)

A book that quickly takes you through the history of Honolulu. I found this one at a bookstore on my visit and glad I found it as it brought back memories of times past.

 
longan
longan

Exotic, Colorful and Artsy Chinatown

By far, my favorite part of downtown Honolulu is colorful and exotic Chinatown. With every visit to this enclave of cultures, I discover something new. Chinatown has changed so much since I was a kid but that's a good thing. Back in the 80's, I remember it being a dangerous place, one that you wouldn't want to step into after dark. It was a place full of drug dealers, prostitutes and gangs.

Today, a revival is taking place. A new wave of culture and arts in Chinatown began a few years ago with the restoration of the beautiful Hawaii Theater. Art galleries, specialty shops and trendy restaurants have opened for business with monthly block parties, parades and celebrations being held on the streets. First Friday is definitely something you don't want to miss.

If you're a foodie like me, you'll definitely want to visit some of the exciting new restaurants here. Whether you're in the mood for dim sum and Hong Kong style noodles, or want to chow down on some Cuban cuisine, it's all here in Chinatown.

A Whirlwind Tour of Chinatown

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Step into the courtyard of the Maunakea Marketplace, where you can sit with a bubble tea in hand.Hong Kong-style waffles are a must-try at the Maunakea Marketplace. Make sure to get them hot!Red lanterns dot this historical district.Rows of open-air stalls sell everything from fresh produce to exotic herbs.Bitter melon is healthy and great as a stir-fry.Local produce is cheap and fresh here.Lots of artsy things going on in this part of town.A Chinese temple we weren't allowed to enter.Chinese bakery selling Hong Kong-style baked goods.Baked manapuas ( pork buns ) must be eaten at least once on every Hawaiian trip.More art in random staircases in obscure buildings.Beautifully restored buildings dating back from the plantation days.Many of these buildings turned into brothels at one time or another.Chinese art can be found all over the place.The oldest tattoo parlor in Hawaii.It's fun looking for art in Chinatown.Don't forget to peek into the mom-and-pop shops that are littered throughout Chiinatown.Bananas and graffiti anyone?One of the wet markets in Chiinatown.Chinese trinkets make inexpensive souvenirs.Chinatown also has a sizable Vietnamese community, resulting in a large number of Pho ( Vietnamese noodles ) restaurants.Condiments and herbs to go with your Pho ( Vietnamese noodles )
Step into the courtyard of the Maunakea Marketplace, where you can sit with a bubble tea in hand.
Step into the courtyard of the Maunakea Marketplace, where you can sit with a bubble tea in hand.
Hong Kong-style waffles are a must-try at the Maunakea Marketplace. Make sure to get them hot!
Hong Kong-style waffles are a must-try at the Maunakea Marketplace. Make sure to get them hot!
Red lanterns dot this historical district.
Red lanterns dot this historical district.
Rows of open-air stalls sell everything from fresh produce to exotic herbs.
Rows of open-air stalls sell everything from fresh produce to exotic herbs.
Bitter melon is healthy and great as a stir-fry.
Bitter melon is healthy and great as a stir-fry.
Local produce is cheap and fresh here.
Local produce is cheap and fresh here.
Lots of artsy things going on in this part of town.
Lots of artsy things going on in this part of town.
A Chinese temple we weren't allowed to enter.
A Chinese temple we weren't allowed to enter.
Chinese bakery selling Hong Kong-style baked goods.
Chinese bakery selling Hong Kong-style baked goods.
Baked manapuas ( pork buns ) must be eaten at least once on every Hawaiian trip.
Baked manapuas ( pork buns ) must be eaten at least once on every Hawaiian trip.
More art in random staircases in obscure buildings.
More art in random staircases in obscure buildings.
Beautifully restored buildings dating back from the plantation days.
Beautifully restored buildings dating back from the plantation days.
Many of these buildings turned into brothels at one time or another.
Many of these buildings turned into brothels at one time or another.
Chinese art can be found all over the place.
Chinese art can be found all over the place.
The oldest tattoo parlor in Hawaii.
The oldest tattoo parlor in Hawaii.
It's fun looking for art in Chinatown.
It's fun looking for art in Chinatown.
Don't forget to peek into the mom-and-pop shops that are littered throughout Chiinatown.
Don't forget to peek into the mom-and-pop shops that are littered throughout Chiinatown.
Bananas and graffiti anyone?
Bananas and graffiti anyone?
One of the wet markets in Chiinatown.
One of the wet markets in Chiinatown.
Chinese trinkets make inexpensive souvenirs.
Chinese trinkets make inexpensive souvenirs.
Chinatown also has a sizable Vietnamese community, resulting in a large number of Pho ( Vietnamese noodles ) restaurants.
Chinatown also has a sizable Vietnamese community, resulting in a large number of Pho ( Vietnamese noodles ) restaurants.
Condiments and herbs to go with your Pho ( Vietnamese noodles )
Condiments and herbs to go with your Pho ( Vietnamese noodles )
hawaii theater
hawaii theater

A Place with History and Charm

When the sun sets on downtown, things start to get awfully quiet. Business workers get ready to go home and stores close for the day. In fact, it's best to go on a weekday if you're visiting this area, unless it happens to be First Friday. But if you find yourself in downtown around dinnertime, you're in luck because some of the most exciting restaurants can be found in this part of town.

On this day, we decided on trying Soul de Cuba, which has been getting rave reviews since opening. Since my friend and I were both new to Cuban cuisines, we gave it a try and we weren't disappointed. This meal became one of the highlights of our trip and I am already craving the dish I had.

During the day, I made sure to try out at least one of the new cupcakeries in town. Unfortunately, my cupcakes were completely destroyed upon opening the box. Sigh. Cupcakes can wait until my next trip.

We also did some pretty random things in downtown. We visited some funky stores that sold designer knock-offs and jade jewelry, watched Chinese men playing mah-jong near the river, and walked past a few storefronts that used to be thriving businesses. Things change with time, and although remnants of the past are being cleared away for new development, many old buildings are lovingly preserved. I hope these reminders of the past remain as they are part of the charm of this unique neighborhood.

As it was the holiday season, we ended our tour with stroll through the Historic District as the buildings were all decked out in holiday cheer - Hawaiian style naturally!

One Last Stroll Through Downtown

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Santa and his Wife takes a holiday in Hawaii.It's Christmas time in Hawaii.Just walking around this area makes me feel like a child again.Frosty and his family are ready for their Hawaiian holiday.Let Them Eat Cupcakes, one of the best cupcakeries in town.Some say the best!My favorite cafe in downtown. Head to Brue Bar for great tasting coffee, espresso drinks and teas.A Chinese bakery selling all sorts of goodies.Old businesses getting ready to make way for new ones.I remember coming to this place as a kid.Our first visit to Soul de Cuba.Abandoned buildings along the riverfront.Fricase de Pollo, marinated chicken sauteed with onions and spanish olives, served over arroz blanco with frijoles negros and platanos maduros.Ropa Vieja, roast hand-pulled pork sauteed with onions, served with arroz moro and platanos maduros. LOVE!The Iolani Palace glows beautifully at night.
Santa and his Wife takes a holiday in Hawaii.
Santa and his Wife takes a holiday in Hawaii.
It's Christmas time in Hawaii.
It's Christmas time in Hawaii.
Just walking around this area makes me feel like a child again.
Just walking around this area makes me feel like a child again.
Frosty and his family are ready for their Hawaiian holiday.
Frosty and his family are ready for their Hawaiian holiday.
Let Them Eat Cupcakes, one of the best cupcakeries in town.Some say the best!
Let Them Eat Cupcakes, one of the best cupcakeries in town.Some say the best!
My favorite cafe in downtown. Head to Brue Bar for great tasting coffee, espresso drinks and teas.
My favorite cafe in downtown. Head to Brue Bar for great tasting coffee, espresso drinks and teas.
A Chinese bakery selling all sorts of goodies.
A Chinese bakery selling all sorts of goodies.
Old businesses getting ready to make way for new ones.
Old businesses getting ready to make way for new ones.
I remember coming to this place as a kid.
I remember coming to this place as a kid.
Our first visit to Soul de Cuba.
Our first visit to Soul de Cuba.
Abandoned buildings along the riverfront.
Abandoned buildings along the riverfront.
Fricase de Pollo, marinated chicken sauteed with onions and spanish olives, served over arroz blanco with frijoles negros and platanos maduros.
Fricase de Pollo, marinated chicken sauteed with onions and spanish olives, served over arroz blanco with frijoles negros and platanos maduros.
Ropa Vieja, roast hand-pulled pork sauteed with onions, served with arroz moro and platanos maduros. LOVE!
Ropa Vieja, roast hand-pulled pork sauteed with onions, served with arroz moro and platanos maduros. LOVE!
The Iolani Palace glows beautifully at night.
The Iolani Palace glows beautifully at night.

After Reading, What Do You Think?

Which area appeals to you most?

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Check Out Some Of My Other Articles on Honolulu

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in some of my other articles on Honolulu.

Hiking Manoa Falls

Adventures in Paradise

Eating My Way Through Honolulu

Thanks for Visiting. Please leave your comments below. :)

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    • smine27 profile image
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      Shinichi Mine 2 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      Merrci thanks so much. I can't wait to go back.

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 2 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      It looks great here too Smine27. A lovely place to wander and explore!

    • smine27 profile image
      Author

      Shinichi Mine 2 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      Nancy Hardin, so glad to see you here. I'll keep visiting the world to show you places in the comfort of your living room my friend.

    • smine27 profile image
      Author

      Shinichi Mine 2 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      Linda BookLady, Hawaii really has a lot of variety, color and moods to suit everyone. Great place!

    • smine27 profile image
      Author

      Shinichi Mine 2 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      Mary Crowther, Maui is a beautiful place as well. Would love to revisit again.

    • smine27 profile image
      Author

      Shinichi Mine 2 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      Brite-Ideas thanks for visiting again. Hawaii should be on everyone's bucket list.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I would especially like to go to Hawaii Theater and take in First Friday. Those are my kind of things!

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Your pages are always so well done, colorful and interesting. Wish I could bring Hawaii to me, since I can't get to Hawaii! (smile)

    • Linda BookLady profile image

      Linda Jo Martin 2 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

      Well, I've never been to Hawaii and never saw photos of Honolulu like this before. How cool... it looks like a varied and colorful place. Thanks for sharing.

    • Mary Crowther profile image

      Mary Crowther 2 years ago from Havre de Grace

      I haven't been to Honolulu, other than the airport when I was on my way to Maui, which was exquisite.

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 2 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      re-visiting your page here on hubpages and it looks just as nice here! Hawaii is on my Bucket List!

    • Minoru10 profile image

      Michael Yoshinaka 3 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

      So glad to live in Hawaii !

    • Andromachi profile image

      Andromachi 3 years ago

      You make me feel jealous. I sure want to visit Hawai now.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 3 years ago from New Zealand

      Enjoyed the stroll through this very interesting article. Love the scenery your photos are very nice, they really set the scene as though your are actually there. Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 3 years ago

      The best part of Hawaii is the incredible landscape around the cities.

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      beautiful page, would love to visit everything you've featured here!

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Thanks for taking us for a stroll with you, Smine27. One of the things that make your articles so interesting to read is that you take us exploring. You find sweet places many of us would miss if we walked the same streets. It always makes me want to do the same. Loved this!

    • VinnWong profile image

      VinnWong 3 years ago

      I can't wait to go to Hawaii again!